In previous posts, we discussed research methods to determine where your ancestor came from in Ireland, and we examined available resources both in the U.S. and in Ireland. If you’ve discovered a placename associated with your ancestor, whether in U.S. or Irish records, you may ask yourself: where in Ireland is this? A lot of places in Ireland carry the same name: did your ancestor come from Ballymoney in County Antrim, or in County Cork? You may also ask: does my ancestor have a house, farmland, or a tombstone that I can visit? Today we’ll talk about the largest to smallest jurisdictions in Ireland, why they’re important to your research, and how you can find specific locations connected to your ancestor.
Poor Law Unions
Originally established to provide poor relief, the Poor Law Unions are some of the largest government-established jurisdictions in Ireland. An Irish county typically had half a dozen Poor Law Unions, each one comprised of dozens of civil parishes (which we will discuss next). Poor Law Unions are important to Irish research because many government records (vital records, taxes, court records, etc.) are organized under this jurisdiction. You’ll also find that repositories like the Family History Library will organize Irish records by Poor Law Union. The good news is that Poor Law Unions are so large that if you know which part of a county your ancestor came from, odds are you can deduce the correct Union. The map of County Kildare shows a total of seven Poor Law Unions (outlined in heavy black). Maps of Poor Law Unions for each Irish county can be found in Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland.
It’s important to know that there are two types of parishes in Ireland: religious parishes and civil parishes. Religious parishes were established by either the Catholic church or the Church of Ireland. Civil parishes, on the other hand, were established by the government. While you want to search religious parishes for your ancestor’s baptism/marriage/burial records, civil parishes are relevant to vital records, censuses, taxes, and court records. Civil parishes typically follow the same boundary-lines as Church of Ireland parishes (though not always), but oftentimes they completely differed from Catholic parish boundaries. Take a look below at the civil parish map for County Kildare (left) versus the Catholic parish map (right):
If your ancestor would have been recorded in government records (i.e. if they lived in Ireland 1850 onwards), it’s important to know the names of both the religious parish and the civil parish your ancestor lived in. The name of the civil parish can be found in censuses, vital records, or tax records for your ancestor. There are benefits to knowing your ancestor’s civil and religious parishes: the civil parish can help you pinpoint the correct location your ancestor came from (since many locations carry the same name, as we discussed). Knowing your ancestor’s religious parish can do the same thing, as well as potentially lead you to their tombstone (by locating graveyards belonging to the parish). While it’s not common for Irish ancestors to have surviving tombstones—especially in rural Ireland in the 18-19th centuries—it’s still worth taking a look. Consult Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland for civil parish maps and johngrenham.com for maps of Catholic parishes.
The smallest jurisdiction in Irish research—and the most specific for your ancestor—is the townland. Located within a civil parish, a “townland” is the Irish equivalent to towns or townships in America. Major cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Cork would naturally fall outside this category. Immigrants from rural Ireland often identified with their townland; if during your research in U.S. records you find an Irish placename associated with your ancestor—a name that doesn’t resemble a county or major city—there’s a good likelihood this was the name of your ancestor’s townland in Ireland.
If your ancestor’s townland is not mentioned in U.S. records, it should appear on multiple Irish records. Surviving Irish Censuses can provide the name of your ancestor’s townland, as should any vital record post-1864 (usually under the heading “residence”).
Criminals or persons of interest were typically described by their townland in court records and newspapers. Townlands were also tacked onto baptism, marriage, and burial entries in Catholic and Protestant registers, though this was not always the case and varied from parish to parish.
One of the primary issues with townlands is that many can carry the same (or similar) names. For instance, “Bally-” and “Drum-” are very common prefixes in townland names (ex: Ballymoney, Ballydehob, Drumbrade, Drumroosk, etc.) and multiples of townlands named “Carrick” or “Shankill” can be found just several miles apart. That’s why it’s important to distinguish your ancestor’s townland using the following jurisdictions: County, Poor Law Union, Civil Parish, Townland. Knowing these jurisdictions will also arm you for every level of research on your ancestor. George B. Handran’s Townlands in Poor Law Unions is an invaluable book in that it lists the townlands within each civil parish under each Poor Law Union in Ireland; this can help you nail down the right jurisdictions for your ancestor and be aware of any same-name townlands lurking nearby.
Finding Your Ancestor’s Home
Now we come to what’s considered the ultimate prize for many folks with Irish ancestry: did my ancestor leave a house, land, or tombstone that I can visit? Tombstones are tricky because there is no collective online repository for Irish graveyards. Also, not every Irishman or woman could afford a tombstone. The only way to know if your ancestor left a tombstone is to either physically visit the graveyards associated with your ancestor’s parish or to contact a researcher in Ireland. While there’s not much luck in finding where your ancestor was buried, there is a good chance you can find their home or farmland, especially if they appear in tax records like Griffith’s Primary Valuation (see blogpost 4 in this series). To illustrate, we’re going to perform a case-study using Griffith’s and our know-how about Irish jurisdictions.
Laurence Footman was a tenant-farmer in Donoure Townland, County Cork, Ireland. He was found in the Griffith’s Primary Valuation, available on Ancestry, renting “house and land” from one Bridget Whelton. The column on the far left of the page shows the lot-number of his property: 18a.
The top of the page (not shown here) says Donoure Townland is part of Rathbarry civil parish. A quick look in A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland tells us that Rathbarry civil parish is in Clonakilty Poor Law Union. Now we can look at maps for Laurence’s land. We jump to the website AskAboutIreland and, under “Griffith’s Places,” we put Donoure Townland, Rathbarry civil parish, Clonakilty Poor Law Union, County Cork. This brings up a section of a large ordinance map, which reflects Irish property-lines as they stood in the early 1900s. Zooming into the section for Rathbarry civil parish, then for Donoure Townland, shows us the location of lot 18. A search of the same area on Google Earth shows the same crossroads and outline for Laurence’s land.
Today, there are two sets of houses on lot 18. At this point it’s unclear which (if either) had belonged to Laurence, but this is still a unique location connected to Laurence Footman that can be visited in person.
Studying Irish jurisdictions can be labor-intensive, and it takes practice to examine ordinance maps and pinpoint the location you’re after (as well as finding the corresponding location on Google Earth). But it’s incredibly rewarding when you find that plot of land connected to your ancestral family. Even if your ancestor didn’t rent or own land, a visit to their townland can be incredibly rewarding since there are likely still buildings your ancestor saw in their time and perhaps even frequented.
Now that we’ve thoroughly examined how to locate your ancestor’s origins in Ireland, we’ll use the last post in this series to discuss how to explore local history. We’ll follow another case study which will demonstrate how knowing the context behind an ancestor’s property or their townland can truly open eyes to the Irish experience.
Citations for the maps used in this blog-post are as follows:
Brian Mitchell, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.), Poor Law Unions of County Kildare.
Brian Mitchell, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.), Parishes of County Kildare.
“Kildare Roman Catholic Records,” RC Parish Maps, Irish Ancestors (http://www.johngrenham.com), accessed January 2021.
Map highlighting Lot 18, Donoure Townland, Rathbarry civil parish, Clonakilty Poor Law Union, County Cork, Ireland; “Griffith’s Places,” Griffith’s Valuation, Ask About Ireland (http://www.askaboutireland.ie), accessed January 2021.
Thank you for this series. The only placename of my ancestor is “born, Mallow, County Cork” in his USA naturalization record. He immigrated to America in 1835 abt age 24. What i dont know is whether Mallow is referencing townland or parish. How would someone from that time refer to his birth place?
It depends. If he was Catholic, he would have more likely referred to his townland or his Catholic parish than to a jurisdiction created by the (British) government (i.e. civil parish, poor law union, etc.). If he was Protestant, he would have referred to a townland or a Church of Ireland parish (or civil parish). It was extremely rare for Irish immigrants to cite a poor law union as their place of origin. My money is on Mallow being a townland. I recommend checking out lists of townlands in County Cork (https://www.townlands.ie/cork/) for Mallow, and then checking County Cork Catholic parishes (https://www.johngrenham.com/places/rcmap_index.php) and civil parishes (A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland) for the name Mallow just in case. Good luck!